New Work: Phil Collins at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

March 8, 2007

Phil Collins’ suite of recent videos at San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art has enthralled museum-goers. From old married couples and baby-boomer professionals to college-aged hipsters and loud-mouthed teenagers, these captivating pieces provide a reason to congregate. They glue patrons to their seats, garnering patience and attention that is rare in the context of an art institution. At just shy of an hour, this video projection is titled The World Won’t Listen, after a 1987 Smiths album of the same name (it is the second of three works to bear that title). Its genesis lied in a poster advertising the Turkish rendering of the title (Dünya Dinlemiyor) that was wheatpasted throughout Istanbul that sought, “the shy, the dissatisfied, narcissists, and anyone who’s ever wished they could be someone else for a night.”(1) From this poster, Collins recruited a myriad of different individuals willing to sing one of the English rock group’s clever, melancholy ballads.

Whether it’s a lone crooner or performers singing in duet, all are from Turkey and seem to be in their twenties. In each video, they stand in front of a stage-set landscape; forested lakes, mountain ridgelines, and pristine tropics. Clutching microphones, performers throw themselves into character, eyes closed, belting the lyrics, and grooving passionately to the music they adore. Wearing a shirt that reads ‘Kafka’, one performer daintily dances to The Smiths’ instrumental track Oscillate Wildly. Another, gilded in gold eye-shadow sings an über-melodramatic version of Rubber Ring. As her face fills the screen, she has forgotten the audiences she is performing for and loses herself in the song’s lyrics: “The passing of time, and all of its crimes, is making me sad again, the passing of time, and all of its sickening crimes, is making me sad again.” The effect of these projections is dramatic in its simplicity. Collins orchestrates multiple meanings in such an elegant way that even the most modest or uninformed viewer will enter into the project of untangling their layers of meaning.

Of all the elements presented, the juxtaposition between the act of singing karaoke and The Smiths is most provocative, as those with even the slightest interest in the band know that their songs are never found on karaoke machines. However, Collins is not alone in his critical inquiry into The Smiths, as critical studies pertaining to the group are not hard to find. A spattering of texts studying their band’s career have been published over the past two decades.

In Julian Stringer’s The Smiths: Repressed (but Remarkably Dressed), The band’s lyrics and public image is read through England’s changing political landscape during Thatcher’s administration, as Stringer writes, “The career of the Smiths’ can be seen as the only sustained response that white, English pop/rock music was able to make against the Conservative Government’s appropriation of white, English national identity; and that being the case, it is not really surprising that the response is utterly riddled with contradiction.”(2) With a cult following built on sex appeal, but with lyrics that were more emotional, sharply smart, and humorous, the group built their largest audience from a generation that came of age under a conservation era of Thatcherism.

The politics of The Smiths lyrics were not overt, just plainly present with a tone of quiet angst glossing their surfaces. They caused youth to rally in silent opposition against the administration’s conservative notion of British national identity. And, having been born in 1970, it’s clear that Collins unashamedly includes himself in this group. Today, The Smiths now boast legions of followers from around the world, including Turkey.

But what might this critical study of The Smiths mean for Collins’ project? What is articulated by having young Turkish adults perform The Smiths’ songs in front of an array of hokey landscapes? One could argue that because these Turkish youth know the lyrics, the works are a testament to the impact of a pop cultural hegemony, making tangible the ever-enveloping process of westernization, not to mention the complications revolving around the ongoing negotiations that will eventually admit Turkey into the EU. But they go further, confounding any simple assessment, and showing that music (e.g that of the The Smiths) can be just as emotionally or politically powerful regardless of where or who the listener might be. This is underscored by the landscape backdrops, which dislocate the singers, allowing them to perform without a definitive connection to any nation or ethnicity. Each offers his or her own personal nuances to what is otherwise a collectively felt feeling of alienation and disillusionment, these being emotions that many younger people identify with regardless of what nation they live in or where their ancestry may be.

Dünya Dinlemiyor shows us that identity is never simple and singular. Instead, it is revealed to be a multiple entity, formed by innumerable bonds, linkages, contradictions and associations. And, yet, through this multiplicity, these Turkish singers croon with the same intensity that Smiths’ fans did nearly two decades prior, perhaps in recognition of their own complicated relationship to the conservative values of the regime in which they live.

At the end of the day, Collins’s videos are easy to champion. It is work that is aesthetically charming and eloquent, but it also posits challenging, möbius-strip-style questions, and is bound to generate some response in today’s contemporary art world. The works are not reassurances as they provide no sound answers, they continually pivot, never to be fully identified. Unlike the bulk of contemporary art, Dünya Dinlemiyor proves that Collins isn’t averse to walking down that path, of making queries into culturally relevant, and even political content. It’s a breath of fresh air when one considers how crucial it is now for contemporary artists to forget the market and instead work towards new possibilities for reinserting the political back into art. Collins has repeatedly accomplished this, and it’s a feat that has allowed him to emerge as a bellwether. —Marc LeBlanc

  1. Dawsey, Jill. New Work: Phil Collins (Exhibition Brochure). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 2006.
  2. Stringer, Julian. The Smiths: Repressed (But Remarkably Dressed) Popular Music, Vol. 11, No. 1. (January 1992) p. 15-26 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 21.


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